Lavinia Goodell: Wisconsin's First Woman Lawyer

The first woman lawyer admitted to the Wisconsin Supreme Court had to fight for that status, overcoming opposition from the most powerful legal figure in the state. Lavinia Goodell (1839-1880) was also one of the first female trial lawyers in the United States, a nationally-respected writer, a Vice President of the Association for the Advancement of Woman, a candidate for Janesville City Attorney, a successful lobbyist, a jail reformer, and a temperance advocate. Yet she is undeservedly obscure. Another woman’s likeness adorns her spot in books, on the web, and at the Rock County Courthouse. Lavinia Goodell: The Private Life and Public Trials of Wisconsin’s First Woman Lawyer aims to secure her rightful place in history.

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“Southold is a pleasant country village.” Lavinia Goodell, July 1, 1863 Other than her sister, Maria Frost, and her cousin, Sarah Thomas, Sarah Case was one of Lavinia Goodell’s closest friends. Sarah Case held such a special place in Lavinia’s heart that Lavinia’s 1879 will bequeathed her $1500 and a gold locket. It is unknown when and where Lavinia and Sarah met, but it seems likely they became acquainted in Brooklyn in the early 1860s. Lavinia first mentioned Sarah in an 1863 letter to her sister, saying, “I wish you knew her. She is a very fine girl. She is…
“Has Willie enlisted yet?” Lavinia Goodell, August 12, 1862 Lavinia Goodell did not have children, but she clearly doted on her four nephews and had a special relationship with the eldest, William Goodell Frost. Named after his maternal grandfather, the family affectionately called him Willie. Willie was born in 1854, when Lavinia was fifteen. When he was four years old, his mother wrote to Lavinia, “Willie says, ‘I wonder if Aunt Vinny curls her hair yet. How pretty it must look. I do want to see her.’” William Goodell Frost The Frosts visited Lavinia and her parents in 1860. In…
“Wasn’t Gerrit Smith a dashing good creature?” Lavinia Goodell, November 7, 1861 Gerrit Smith was a prominent abolitionist and social reformer who was a longtime acquaintance of Lavinia’s father, William Goodell. The Goodell family remained friends with Smith for the rest of his life, and Smith was one of Lavinia’s mentors. Gerrit Smith Smith was born in Utica, New York in 1797. (Lavinia Goodell was born in Utica in 1839.) Smith’s father was an early partner of John Jacob Astor in the fur trade. Shortly after Smith’s father died in 1837, a financial crisis led to a depression that lasted…
“I know Lavinia can never earn a steady living.” Maria Frost, April 10, 1865 It is doubtful that Lavinia Goodell ever enjoyed extended periods of good health. She was a sickly infant and youngster, and as an adult she was often ill. (During the years she practiced law, in addition to physical ailments, she suffered from frequent bouts of severe depression. That topic will be covered in a future post.) In spite of her many maladies,  Lavinia rarely complained, and she never let her poor health stand in the way of accomplishing whatever she set out to do. Lavinia Goodell…
“Health is more important than writing.” Clarissa Goodell to Lavinia Goodell, August 5, 1861 Lavinia Goodell grew up in a family that believed in healthy living practices. Good nutrition, scrupulous sanitary customs, and regular exercise were part of their daily program. Here is how Lavinia’s sister, Maria Frost, described the household routine at the time of Lavinia’s birth in 1839: The habits of the household [included] regularly stated hours of rising and retiring, the table regimen was according to the principles of Dr. Sylvester Graham, with some exceptions suggested by constitutional needs, as learned by careful experience and strong common…
“There has been a great excitement here about a murder lately committed.” Maria Frost, July 18, 1855 In the course of researching Lavinia Goodell’s life and times, we have come across accounts of many little known, but interesting, historical events that impacted her or her family. For example, did you know that there was a public lynching in Janesville, Wisconsin in the summer of 1855? Here is the story that appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal: Wisconsin State Journal, July 13, 1855   On June 10, 1855, a man named David Mayberry, who had recently been released from an Illinois…
“Hattie grows lovelier every day.” Maria Frost, December 1, 1862. The child mortality rate was high in the mid-1800s, with 34% of children born in 1860 not living to see their fifth birthday. The Goodell family was not spared.  Lavinia Goodell’s sister and brother-in-law lost two young children. Maria and Lewis Frost already had one son when, on January 20, 1858, Lewis Frost wrote to his in-laws reporting that Maria had just given birth to a fine, healthy eight pound boy in Arcade, New York, which is near Buffalo. Lewis said, “I am very glad the child is a boy…
“Necessity compels many women to go into the world of business” Lavinia Goodell, November 1867 Lavinia Goodell was a voracious reader and subscribed to many publications, particularly those with a connection to the Congregational Church and those advancing the cause of women’s rights. One of the periodicals she read regularly was the Advance, a weekly publication of the Congregational Church that was headquartered in Chicago and put out its first issue in September 1867. It was not long before Lavinia found cause to send a letter to the magazine. (Lavinia was not the first member of her family to be…
“What do you think about a change of business?” Maria Frost, August 30, 1865 Lavinia Goodell held a number of different jobs. She was rarely out of work for long and, like many young people who are trying to move up in the world, she was always on the lookout for fresh opportunities. Her family and friends also sometimes suggested positions that they thought might suit her. Lavinia Goodell, c. 1870   In 1865, Lavinia’s father retired from his position as editor of the Principia, an anti-slavery newspaper in New York City, and he and his wife moved in…
“Don’t try to be a man.” Maria Frost to Lavinia Goodell, April 13, 1858 In the spring of 1858, shortly before she graduated from the Brooklyn Heights Seminary, Lavinia Goodell was unsure what the next chapter of her life should hold, so she asked her sister for advice, saying: I must have some life plan.  I don’t believe in living to get married, if that comes along in the natural course of events—very well, but to make it virtually my end and aim, to square all my plans to it, and study and learn for no other purpose, does…
“My trunk has got stuck somewhere on the road.” Lavinia Goodell, September 15, 1871 If you thought that lost and damaged luggage was a problem unique to air travel, you would be mistaken. In the 1800s, rail passengers encountered the same  difficulties. Lavinia Goodell had the misfortune of suffering both lost and damaged bags during her move to Wisconsin. Stock photo of 1800s luggage  In the fall of 1871, Lavinia left her New York City job at Harper’s Bazar  and moved to Janesville to help care for her aging parents. William and Clarissa Goodell had been living with their elder…
We are proud to debut two brand new, self-guided walking tours of downtown Janesville, Wisconsin which allow fans to follow in the footsteps of Lavinia Goodell, Wisconsin’s first woman lawyer. The walking tours pass by sites that Lavinia saw every day when she “went down street” (West Milwaukee Street) to go to her law office or pick up the mail at the post office; made the trek up the hill to the Rock County Courthouse; visited clients and taught classes at the jail on the bank of the Rock River; or stopped by the Janesville Gazette office to drop off…
“I am now a large capitalist!” Lavinia Goodell, August 15, 1870 Lavinia Goodell made history as one of the country’s first women lawyers, but what if she had pursued a different career, such as millinery store owner? Although that might sound far-fetched, it’s not. Thanks to recently discovered family letters, we have learned that before Lavinia decided to study law, she gave serious consideration to going into the millinery business. Stock photo of 1870s hat   In the summer of 1870, Lavinia was working at Harper’s Bazar magazine in lower Manhattan. (Learn more about her Harper’s career here and here
“I received my commission as notary public.” Lavinia Goodell, February 10, 1875 Since Lavinia Goodell was the first woman admitted to practice law in Wisconsin, it is likely that she was also the first woman in Wisconsin to receive a commission as a notary public. Lavinia’s first mention of serving as a notary appears in a February 10, 1875 letter that she wrote to her sister, Maria Frost: I received, yesterday, my commission as notary public, from the Gov. So now I can administer the oath, acknowledge deeds, etc. The certificate expresses the Gov’s confidence in my “integrity & ability,”…
“The most approved means of accomplishing result [is] the use of electricity.” A.P. Peck, M.D. to Lavinia Goodell, June 7, 1877 In the spring of 1877, Lavinia Goodell could no longer ignore her growing ovarian tumor, and she sought medical advice from a variety of sources. She corresponded with a physician in Chicago. She considered travelling to Michigan, where her sister was living, to consult with a mysterious German woman who claimed to have healing powers. And she had a rather extensive correspondence with Racine physician A.P. Peck, who treated tumors through the use of electricity. Racine Journal, November 26,…
“Lavinia Goodell was insane & not of sound mind or memory.” Maria Frost’s challenge to Lavinia Goodell’s will, 1880 On April 9, 1880, just nine days after Lavinia Goodell died, one of her executors, Janesville attorney Sanford Hudson, filed an application in Dane County court (although Lavinia had lived in Rock County since 1871 and practiced law there for over five years, she had moved to Madison in November of 1879, making her a Dane County resident at the time of her death) to have her will admitted to probate. The reason for drafting a will, of course, is to…